In Episode 226, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger sail the shores of southern Maine from Kennebunkport to York, searching for the ghost ship Isidore. They say the Isidore was cursed from the start, which is why she wrecked on her maiden voyage November 30, 1842. Had the captain and crew heeded their premonitions, maybe 16 lives could have been spared. The story of this tragedy may have been lost if not for a song and book by Maine troubadour Harvey Reid, who joins Jeff and Ray on this episode.
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JEFF: Are you a superstitious person, Ray?
RAY: Not especially… but I guess I have a few… hmmm… let’s call them habits?
JEFF: Like what?
RAY: I have to tap on the airplane before I get in for a trip.
JEFF: Got it.
RAY: And I drink a bloody mary mix on the flight.
JEFF: Okay, a little airplane ritual. Would you panic if you sat down in your airplane seat and you realized you forgot to tap the plane?
RAY: I don’t know… I can’t imagine forgetting.
JEFF: I get that. Travel is dangerous, and if a little habit like carrying a St. Christopher medal if you’re Catholic, saying a prayer, or tapping the plane makes you feel better, then so be it. The reality, either way, is that with travel, a lot of factors are out of your control.
RAY: So we’re standing by the boat docks in Kennebunkport, Maine. There’s fishing boats and things like that. This time of year all of the pleasure boats and yachts are someplace warmer. And we’re talking about superstitions and travel. Does this week’s story have something to do with a boat?
JEFF: That it does, Ray. A ghostly ship that still haunts the waters of coastal Maine. A tragedy and story that inspired songs and books. Today we’re searching for the wreck of the cursed ship: Isidore.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 226 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about fifteen minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, thank you for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re a community of legend seekers always exploring the odd history, ghosts, monsters, and strangeness that make New England unique. And most of our story leads come from you! This one did. Thanks to Grant Thompson for contacting us about the legend of the Isidore. If you know a strange tale, you can contact us through our Web site, our free New England Legends app that you can download right now on your smart phone, through social media, or in our Super Secret Facebook group.
JEFF: Now, before we go looking for the ghost ship, Isidore, we need to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
RAY: Christmas is practically upon us, which means hopefully you’ll get plenty of Nuwati Herbals under your tree this year. This is a holiday for traditions… NEW traditions. That’s why we thought we’d hear from Santa.
SANTA: Ho, Ho, Ho… Santa wants to start a new tradition this year. Out with the milk and cookies and in with the tea and cookies! I called Rod Jackson, founder of Nuwati Herbals, he’s a good buddy of mine. He makes 22 of the best herbal teas and he’s assured me that they have plenty of tea on hand to handle the Christmas Eve rush. Merry Christmas to all! And don’t forget to set out a plate of cookies with hot tea for me.
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. We’re looking for a ghost ship off the coast of Kennebunkport, Maine?
JEFF: We are. It’s a ship called Isidore, and this is where she made her ill-fated maiden voyage. A voyage that maybe could have been postponed if the Captain and crew heeded their… premonitions. So let’s head back to 1842, and meet Captain Leander Foss.
RAY: It’s late November of 1842 here in Kennebunk, Maine. The leaves are all gone, and winter’s chill seems to be arriving early this year. Still, no matter the weather, fishermen need to fish, and ships need to sail. Livelihoods depend on it.
JEFF: Recently, there’s been a new addition to the Kennebunk harbor, a ship called Isidore. The Isidore is a barque owned by Captain Leander Foss.
RAY: The thing about Captain Foss, is that they say he’s unlucky. There are stories of his first vessel going doing on her maiden voyage. He’s so unlucky, some say that when he and his wife were buying a family burial plot, his wife asked to be buried nowhere near her husband’s grave.
JEFF: Sailors are a superstitious bunch to begin with.
RAY: And the day the Isidore was being launched into the water from the boat docks, she got stuck on the ramp, and had to be pried loose to get into the water.
JEFF: That IS an unlucky omen. A ship that isn’t eager to get into the water doesn’t bode well, does it?
RAY: No it doesn’t.
JEFF: The plan for the Isidore is that she’s to set sail on November 30th with a cargo of hay and potatoes bound for New Orleans. Captain Foss is readying his crew of 15 men to sail in just a few days.
RAY: It’s November 26th, when the Isidore’s carpenter, a man named Tom King has a strange dream. The dream rattles him to the point where he shares it with his wife and a few friends down by the docks.
TOM KING: I dreamed I was standing on the deck of the Isidore looking out toward the shore. That’s when I saw seven coffins laid side-by-side on the beach. I called out… to no one in particular… asking who are the coffins for? “For the crew of the Isidore,” is the reply I heard.
RAY: Tom has this dream for three nights in a row. And by the third night, both he and his wife are rattled to the point where Tom decides he’s not going to sail on the 30th. Not only is this bad form to leave your captain and crew short-handed, it’s illegal. But Tom can’t shake the horrible feeling inside. By the morning of November 30th, he’s nowhere to be found.
JEFF: Captain Foss is furious at being without his ship’s carpenter, but they have a schedule to keep. And even worse, no one in the Isidore’s 15-man crew seems comfortable as they ready the ship. Crewman John Crowder said he’s heard dogs howling outside of his home for the last three nights in a row. Crewman Paul Grant had his own dream about coffins. This morning, Crewman William Harding was standing on the dock staring at the Isidore and was overheard saying, “I wish she was 1,000 miles out to sea and I was on shore.”
RAY: Despite all of these bad feelings and omens, and a few snow flurries in the air, the crew and captain need to earn a living. The potatoes and hay are heading to New Orleans TODAY. It’s the afternoon on November 30th, when the Isidore sets sails under cloudy skies with a crew of 15, plus one passenger, a fellow ship captain who is hitching a ride to New Orleans.
[SAILING OCEAN FOR A WHILE]
JEFF: The skies grow dark fast, and the wind picks up… the wind is coming from the northeast, and that’s when Captain Foss knows he’s made a mistake. Soon, a nor-easter bears down on the Isidore only a couple of hours into her maiden voyage.
[SNOW WIND RAIN OCEAN SWELLING]
JEFF: Captain Foss orders the ship to get closer to the coastline in the hopes they can find some kind of harbor to wait out this storm. But the weather is so bad they can’t make out any landmarks or lights to tell them where they are. Visibility is only a few feet. Snow is pelting the ship and piling up on the decks of the Isidore.
RAY: The sea is growing angrier by the minute. Still heading south, Captain Foss pulls the ship to starboard knowing the shore is somewhere to the west. Maybe he can beach the ship on some sand if they can just get close enough to see it. But the visibility is so low, and the seas are so rough, all they can do is pray to see some sign or lights on land.
JEFF: Captain Foss squints, believing maybe that’s land just ahead, when suddenly a mighty gale shoves the Isidore right up against the rocks of Cape Neddick…
JEFF: Destroying the ship, and dooming the 16 men on board to the icy waters of the Atlantic and the jagged rocks of Cape Neddick… just eight miles away from where they embarked out of Kennebunkport.
[STORM FADES OUT]
RAY: By the following morning, with the nor’easter moving out to sea, the wreck of the Isidore is discovered under more than a foot of snow. Only seven bodies are ever found… the rest are lost at sea.
JEFF: Seven bodies. Seven coffins. Just like in Tom King’s dream. This is so tragic. The Bangor Daily Whig and Courier newspaper covers the story on December fifth. Go ahead and give this a read, Ray.
RAY: It says: It becomes our duty to record one of the most distressing disasters by sea that has ever taken place in our vicinity. On Wednesday night last, the barque Isidore, bound for New Orleans, was driven ashore in a gale on Cape Neddick Rocks, a few miles south of Wells village, and totally wrecked. And melancholy to relate, every person on board, consisting of sixteen men perished. Five of the crew were fathers of families, and have left 20 children; two were young men who are only sons, and their mothers are widows.
JEFF: This is all so tragic. And the worst part is that these are the same rocks where a ship named the William Fales also wrecked just nine months ago killing eight men. For years, sailors have been asking for a lighthouse at the tip of Cape Neddick. A lighthouse that may have saved two dozen lives this year alone…. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: The lighthouse for Cape Neddick was finally approved in 1874, with construction completed in 1879. Much too late for the crew of Isidore or the William Fales and surely dozens of other vessels that could have had a safe trip with the light to guide them.
JEFF: Though the Isidore wrecked all those years ago, her ghost ship still roams these waters. But most people don’t dig any deeper than the strange ghostly sighting. Maybe they rub their eyes, look out at sea again, and shrug. Asking no more questions as to the name of the ship or her story. One of the strangest parts about the Wreck of the Isidore, is that most people of coastal Maine seemed to have forgotten the tragedy. Maybe because it was so long ago, we just don’t feel a connection. But there is one Mainer who is determined to keep the Isidore on our minds.
HARVEY: This is Harvey Reid, I’m a singer, songwriter, troubadour from York Village, Maine.
JEFF: Harvey wrote the song “The Wreck of the Isidore,” and three other songs about this tragic wreck that appear on his The Great Sad River album. And he also wrote the book, The Wreck of the Isidore: A Glimpse into the Hidden History of Maine.
RAY: Harvey, how did you find out about the wreck, and what inspired you to write the song?
HARVEY: For me it was pure accident which I attempted to conclude might have been some kind of fate, because I’m a musician and a songwriter with a great interest in traditional music, and I sing a lot of old ballads, and I always thought it would be fun to write my own kind of shipwreck ballad. And because my family was involved in shipbuilding in Maine, so years ago I bought a book at the Maine Maritime Museum called Shipwrecks of Maine, and I was always intending one day to open that, and get some ideas for a song, and I just happen to open it one day and it was November 30th 2000, and I was flipping through the book, just mostly looking at pictures of shipwrecks and there’s just a crappy black and white picture of a tombstone and it had the name of my town on it, and it had this inscription, and I said, “Wow, that’s pretty cool… November 30, 1842, Captain Leander Foss wrecked together with 16 men in Cape Neddick, Maine.” I thought that was interesting. It’s November 30th. I went Oooo! It said the ship’s name was the Isidore, and I thought, “That’s a nice sounding name.” I started trying to write a song, and I got a line, and somewhere I still have the computer file where I sang the melody and the first line. I realized I needed to learn something about the ship, and dig in and find out what happened. And here I am 20 years later still learning about it, and thinking about it. It turned out to be quite a story.
JEFF: Harvey, you live in Maine, right where the wreck occurred. How is it that locals didn’t know about this tragedy that took 16 lives?
HARVEY: Well, there’s your question! I mean, all stories get lost unless there’s something keeping them alive. To me that’s what became the interesting thing about the Isidore, there’s two stories. There’s what happened, and then there’s: Why does nobody know anymore. But I live a block from a pretty impressive place called The York Historical Society, it’s one of the major attractions here. People can go and take tours of gravestones and learn about the past. I went and talked to the people there, they had a big library of stuff, and they didn’t know anything about it. I thought, Well, this is the town the thing wrecked in. Then I went 10 miles up the coast as the crow flies, but half and hour north to where they built the ship, and where all the guys were from who were on the ship. I went to the Kennbunkport Historical Society and they had a fat folder and they knew all about it. So there’s this provincial thing in Maine. If you live in a small town, you don’t go anywhere else. And the people here were creeped out by that. I mean there’s all these dead bodies on their town, and they didn’t know who they were. There was massive funerals up in Kennebunk, and the churches were overflowing. It was a big deal to have all of those people perish on the maiden voyage. So people were very creeped out by this and it was a time when even just the idea of bad luck wasn’t good. It was a religious time, and it was either God’s will, or it was this weird stuff called superstition which is kind of witchcraft. That’s my take. It was just an uncomfortable thing to think about: just a whole bunch of guys ranging from about 15 to 43 just dashed to pieces on the meanest piece of rock anywhere in southern Maine, just a horrible horrible thing and they did nothing to deserve it.
RAY: So the event, of course, makes the people of York, Maine, uncomfortable. This is tragic accident with dead bodies….
JEFF: And missing bodies!
RAY: Right. I can see how it’s the kind of thing you want to put behind you.
JEFF: Harvey talked a lot about Thomas King, the Isidore’s carpenter. I think this guy is the key to the survival of the story. Think about it. He had these horrible prophetic dreams, he hid when he was supposed to sail, and then the Isidore goes down on its maiden voyage and everyone on board was lost. Had Thomas King been there, he would have died too.
RAY: Harvey explained how Thomas King hid in the woods for a few days to get out of this voyage. Imagine you were him. These troubling dreams scared you out of your duties, and then you learn that the fear and premonitions literally saved your life. I imagine you’d share that story with a few people. And then piece together the other stories you heard from crew members’ families about the barking dogs, the bad dreams, and the overheard comments. Those other stories would validate King’s actions.
JEFF: Still, Thomas King had survivor’s guilt. He left Kennebunk shortly after the tragedy and started a new life in New Hampshire. But King is our survivor. I think he’s the key to turning this from another tragic wreck; a statistic; like the William Fales, to a legendary wreck that maybe didn’t have to happen, if only the crew would have heeded their premonitions the way Thomas King did.
RAY: Which brings us to the ghost ship sightings. There’s something powerful about standing where a tragedy took place. When you’re talking about maritime history, shoot… practically the whole coast has seen something bad happen over the last four centuries. But any strange sightings around Cape Neddick, gets attached to the Isidore. Harvey, have you heard about any ghost ship sightings?
HARVEY: You know, I’ve done probably 15 November 30th concerts just trying to keep this story alive. One of them I did; there’s an art museum about a quarter mile, just one peninsula over from where the ship wrecked, and a guy came up to me after the show, he said, “Can I talk to you for a second?” and he said, “I’m really glad you’re talking about this, I wish you’d talk more about the ghost stuff. I’m a fisherman around here and me and my friends have all seen weird stuff and we’re afraid to talk about it. And he said—I can’t remember the term he used—where you see a wake, where a ship is obviously there, and there’s no ship there. And he said that’s the thing that him and his friends see the most. I had heard the fishermen were still talking about this, but I did meet a guy who very sincerely wanted me to talk more about that. In fact, that gives me a little bit of a chill even as I’m sitting here.
JEFF: Oooo I’m getting a chill too. Fishermen and sailors know what a ship’s wake looks like. They’re not going to mistake it for something else. It’s their business to know. Maybe the legend of the Isidore is a cautionary tale, maybe as a warning to respect the sea, but also as a reminder to listen to those gut feelings and omens… it could just save your life because travel is dangerous.
RAY: We’ll let Harvey Reid take us out on this one with his song, “The Wreck of the Isidore.”
SONG: “Wreck of the Isidore” by Harvey Reid.
JEFF: Harvey Reid’s song is haunting…. To me, the most troubling part of the legend of the Isidore is that it’s NOT unique. There have been countless others, where lives were lost and children orphaned. But this story caught the attention of a troubadour, someone emailed us about it, and we keep it alive. The reality is travel is inherently dangerous; we don’t always reach our destinations, so we share these tales and connect with our past.
RAY: Connecting is what we’re all about. We’d appreciate it if you would connect with us and become one of our growing number of patreon patrons who support everything we do. Call it a holiday gift for your buddies Jeff and Ray. For just $3 bucks per month you get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content you can’t get anywhere else. If you can help us continue to grow and bring you new stories each week, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
JEFF: Please be sure to subscribe to our podcast, because it’s free, and we’ll tell you a new story each and every Thursday just as we’ve done for the past 226 weeks in a row. And tell a friend or two about our show. It helps our community grow.
RAY: We’d like to thank Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talents this week. Thank you to Harvey Reid for talking to us and sharing his song, “The Wreck of the Isidore.” You can find his music on places like iTunes, and his book on Amazon and other book sellers. And we’ll have links to his Web site from ours, just click on Episode 226.
JEFF: We’d also like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.
RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.